A more on-the-nose title for Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut would have been The Sally Fowler Rat Pack, since that’s what the story ultimately concerns—with a gentle emphasis on one of its principals. The lead, if the largely unemphatic tapestry can be said to have a lead, isn’t Sally, nor is it the first character we meet (that’s actually Carolyn Farina’s Audrey Rouget in the cold open), but the one who comes to serve as our surrogate in the story, middle-class Tom Townsend. Tom is adopted by a cadre of well-dressed, unabashedly pretentious young men and women who indulge in all-hours-of-the-night conversation and revelry. They match Tom’s “type” in every particular, except that they have far more money, and they own their party attire, while his tux is a rental. They are the last descendants of the black-tie-clad lushes of pre-Code movies like William Dieterle’s The Last Flight—unfettered, of course, by wartime traumas that would justify such copious imbibing. Like Owen Wilson’s Gil in Midnight in Paris, Tom’s nightlife is undistinguished from (or subsumes) his dream life, although it’s gradually revealed that he has preexisting associative links to some of the group’s members, namely one Serena Slocum.
Metropolitan is the title, however, but it doesn’t refer to anything specific in the script. It isn’t even a place, or a manner of speaking about a place, like the way “Metropolis” or “Gotham” are synonymous with “New York City.” In its non-specific condition, the title accommodates multiple interpretations: a drink, probably made with vermouth and bitters, a faddish dance, an enlightened state of being. A certain minimum standard for appreciating the finer things. It, like the film, is dissociated from urban blight, maybe even out of touch, but not callously so. No, Stillman’s “urban haute bourgeoisie” are redeemed because, like Ford does with his Confederate army protagonists, the filmmaker takes custody of them, their idiosyncrasies, their flaws. They seem, for a time, rather wonderful, like the Bullocks in My Man Godfrey.
In retrospect, the components of Whit Stillman’s 1990s trilogy (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco) acquire their resonance from observing the quiet passing of ephemeral things: Metropolitan celebrates and mourns the specific character of a place and time, youthful associations and crushes, a toolkit of values, even if those values are not exactly shared by, say, housewives in Duluth and auto mechanics in Albuquerque. The debutante subculture of Manhattan, its tendrils of tradition reaching all the way back to the days of Tammany Hall, has more or less been eclipsed by the much-derided “trust-fund babies,” independently wealthy hipsters, and other persons of interest (and derision) on the pages of Gothamist and Gawker.
The degree to which Stillman’s milieu qualifies as a Lost World, or merely a metamorphosed one, is ultimately unanswerable, but the bittersweet quality of the telling remains acute and pungent. The slight narrative is thus fortified, its manifestly hermetic scene made accessible with self-effacing humor and the musical quality of his language: characters who speak their minds, in complete sentences, a preemptive antidote to the “ums” and “ahs” of the indie/mumblecore revolution that was still to come. Recall, also, that these people are on the last part of the diving board before they plummeted into the biosphere depicted in American Psycho; away from Stillman’s prism, the 1% were rarely seen in such a flattering light.
Making metaphorical mince meat out of his preppie subjects is about the last thing on Stillman’s agenda, and, on the evidence of four films, he’s quite aware that his creations are more than a little fanciful; “confection” is one of the more frequently used terms in reviews. Beneath the licorice sweet-tart flavor, however, are hints of rueful loneliness and dissatisfaction, which come a cropper later in the film as the characters are slow to realize that their haute little cabal wasn’t much of a thing to begin with, it certainly wasn’t held together by universal affection, and it’s now gone. The final third of Metropolitan shows its “survivors” (or they’re the walking dead) somewhat scattered, like shrapnel, seeking closure the only way they know how: rather ineffectually, but with the absolute conviction of those that love.